Jasmine is an epic tale set between two very different countries. Spanning generations, filled with intrigue, tragedy, and the intricate delicacy of the art of drinking tea.
Aki is a successful middle aged Japanese business man who is travelling through his life in an average way. His wife died some years ago, and his only family are his younger half sister and his mother, who has a degenerative illness. Or so he thinks. One of the missing links in his past is that of his father, a mystery to both him and his mother, who disappeared to China when Aki was small. Presumed dead. But in Aki's adulthood he does a bit of digging, and finds out from an old friend of his fathers in China that the circumstances around his disappearance were far from clear, and he may in fact still be alive.
Aki travels to China to trace his father. Having discovered his father was a well known comedic actor with a Chinese name, and a serious actor with a Japanese name, he goes to visit his old friend the movie director, who is currently making a movie about the life of his father as a double agent for Japan. But it turns out, art imitates life through the generations. Aki becomes inexplicably entangled with the woman playing the love interest of his father, the actress Li Xing. At first, she's just a beautiful actress. But it turns out not only does she have family ties to one of the families he knows in his hometown of Kobe, but she has a fugitive boyfriend who is the most wanted list after Tiananmen Square. In the name of political intrigue and infatuation, Aki sets out to help Xingxing any way he can. But he has caught the notice of the Chinese secret police.
Aki has to make a choice about his life, and not forget about the reason he started his journey in the first place. But life always throws up the unexpected, and what happens now, what happened before, and what happened to his family before him, shape the person he is becoming.
Translated by Juilet W Carpenter, Jasmine is a heavy read. Not that this is, I think, the fault of the translation or the original work, but mainly because of my ignorance about contemporary Chinese Japanese relations. Sure, I know what happened in world war two. I remember Tiananmen Square, I was standing in the three years after it happened while holidaying in China. I've read a bit about China and how their governance works. But I really, really struggled to get my head around the cultural implications of what was happening in Jasmine at the beginning. Not that there isn't some assistance, of course. There are carefully constructed chapters and paragraphs which attempt to explain some of the history between the two nations, and various bits about China's changing political climate, but the whole thing is pretty far out of my comfort zone. I had no idea how little I knew about the whole business until I read this story, and unlike some fictions, this book does require a bit of prior knowledge to reap the full benefits of the storyline.
This aside, the story is good. Solid. It moves, it's set in a lot of different spaces. All the character development is sound. Aki, the director, and Xingxing are all fantastic, well rounded. The story spans time-frames and generations, and follows through years even though it may have been easier from a plot point of view to rap it up more neatly. This makes the story seem more like real life; messy and complicated where things happen that aren't necessarily neat and don't necessarily make sense. Just when you think, as a reader, everything is going to be okay or resolved, something else happens. It's relentless, with no down spots.
Finally, the writing itself is tactile and powerful. I spent the whole reading experience wishing the green tea I was drinking was better, because the way they made tea in the story, the smell and the experience and the visual nature of it, made me jealous. I could smell the wet streets, see the big cities. Like I said, a really good book, and only my own lack of basic knowledge impacted negatively on my reading experience.
I would strongly recommend a basic knowledge of Sino-Japanese relations over the last, say, fifty years, including the cultural revolution in China, and how the Japanese responded as a nation. You know, the stuff I didn't know. I feel like you could certainly get a lot more out of the plot. Also, although Jasmine has a contemporary setting, it would be appropriate for someone who enjoys historical fiction. It's not a light read, or a small read, but it's interesting and well written. But not for the faint hearted.
This isn't like any of the previous Japanese and Chinese literature I've previously read, but Ha Jin writes about contemporary Chinese life (in the country, not the cities) and he is amazing. So for the lack of knowledge about anything else to recommend I'm going with him. Also, as I said above, epic historical fiction.
|Publisher:||Thames River Press|